CARACAS, Venezuela — Dueling concerts are being staged this week on both sides of Venezuela's border with Colombia. After billionaire Richard Branson announced an aid concert in Colombia on Friday to benefit Venezuelans suffering food and medicine shortages amid their country's economic crisis, Nicolas Maduro's government ordered up a rival concert of its own.
Maduro denies any humanitarian crisis exists, and has blocked food and medicine from the United States that is being warehoused on the Colombian border from entering Venezuela, claiming the relief effort led by opposition leader Juan Guaido is part of U.S.-orchestrated "coup" to oust him from power.
Branson told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that the concert he's throwing on Friday will save lives by raising money for "much-needed medical help" and other aid for crisis-torn Venezuela. Minutes later, Maduro's government announced what it called a "massive" concert for Friday and Saturday on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Here are some of the details for the dueling concerts:
LIVE AID CONCERT VENEZUELA-STYLE
Although he backs Guaido's claim to the presidency, Branson told the AP that his concert is not funded by any government and that all the artists are performing for free. The wealthy British adventurer and founder of the Virgin Group said he's aiming to raise $100 million from donations from viewers worldwide watching the concert on a livestream over the internet.
Branson's concert plan and even its name — Venezuela Aid Live — immediately evoked comparisons to Irish rock star Bob Geldof's 1985 Live Aid concert that raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia. It is to be held in Cucuta, a Colombian border city of some 700,000 that has been swollen by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine in their homeland.
"Venezuela sadly has not become the utopia that the current administration of Venezuela or the past administration were hoping for, and that has resulted in a lot of people literally dying from lack of medical help," Branson told AP in a telephone interview from Necker, his private island in the British Virgin Islands. "I think it will draw attention to the problem on a global basis."
BATTLE OF THE BANDS
Branson says up to 300,000 people are expected to attend Friday's concert, which is free to the public so impoverished Venezuelans can attend. Its lineup includes Mexican band Mana, Spanish singer-songwriter Alejandro Sanz and Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra. The organizers confirmed Tuesday that despite reports, Manu Chao would not be performing, and Branson said Peter Gabriel could not attend.
Branson said he hopes Venezuela's armed forces, who remain loyal to Maduro, will allow the U.S. aid to cross the barricaded Las Tienditas Bridge connecting the two countries and reach Venezuela.
"We want to make it a joyous occasion," Branson said of the concert. "And we're hoping that sense prevails and that the military allows the bridge to be open so that much-needed supplies can be sent across."
"HANDS OFF VENEZUELA"
Maduro's government will throw what it has dubbed a "Hands Off Venezuela" concert Friday and Saturday on Venezuela's side of the border. The government has not announced the lineup, but Maduro said that Venezuela will import 300 tons of aid from Russia and his government has promised to send 20,000 boxes of government-subsidized food to the poor in Cucuta, where tons of U.S. aid is sitting earmarked for Venezuelans.
Saturday's government concert coincides with the date Guaido has called for "caravans" of tens of thousands of Venezuelans to assemble to carry the aid from Colombia into Venezuela.
Calling the government plans "cynical," Guaido said it would not change the opposition's plans to bring in the aid. "If it doesn't enter on the 23rd, it will enter on the 24th, it will enter on the 25th" of February, he said.
POWER STRUGGLE BETWEEN TWO PRESIDENTS
The rival bids for aid and concerts to shore up support are part of a tense bid by Maduro and the opposition to break a nearly monthlong stalemate over power in Venezuela. Guaido declared himself Venezuela's rightful president on Jan. 23, a claim backed by the U.S. and dozens of other countries that argue Maduro's re-election was fraudulent because popular opposition candidates were banned from running.
Maduro has held on to the support of the military, the country's main powerbroker, and relies on powerful allies like Russia and China in a conflict with increasingly Cold War-like dimensions.
Luis Andres Henao, The Associated Press